Marty Giles

Marty Giles

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As is our family custom -- perhaps yours, too -- we brought a young fir tree into our home a couple of weeks ago and decorated it with colorful lights and memory-laden baubles. Lights strung so they’re buried in the branches a bit, heavy ornaments on the bottom and inside, where the branches are strongest, delicate ornaments up high, special topper on the leader; certain things seem to belong certain places on our captured Yule tree.

Different parts of trees living in the forest (or on the tree farm) are also utilized in different ways.

For example, the outside edges of trees, where we hang most of our ornaments, are the favored habitat for the black phoebe. Coos County’s only wintering fly-catcher, black phoebes flit about the branch tips snagging insects. The ends of conifer boughs are home and fodder for caterpillars and other insects that feed on the needles.

Small and medium branches of trees are the main feeding grounds for downy woodpeckers, while large branches and the main trunk are favored by nearly-identical hairy woodpeckers. Large branches and the main trunk, too, are where you’ll find nuthatches working their way head-first down the tree, feeding on insects on the trunk's bark.

The brightly-marked Townsend’s warblers are found high in the forests in winter, as are the weird-beaked crossbills. High in conifers is also where red tree voles generally live, feeding on the trees’ needles.

In contrast, our resident spotted towhees, as one example, make their homes low in trees and shrubs and on the ground beneath them. Since towhees are well-camouflaged in color, they’re more likely to catch your attention when they’re flipping through the duff to expose their meals with their two-footed hop-scratch.

The tree needles that we vacuum up at home accumulate under living conifers, too, building the fluffy, organic-rich duff the towhees toss around. That decomposing duff is yet another tree-related habitat, one inhabited by a myriad of arthropods, worms, and other invertebrates, including certain woodland salamanders. Also borrowing through and under the duff are small mammals such as mice, voles, and mountain beavers.

In the soil below the conifers, still other organisms thrive. Certain fungi form relationships with roots of conifers and decorate the ground beneath the trees in autumn with their “mushroom” fruiting bodies. (Other fungi form such relationships with deciduous trees, some don’t discriminate, and others don’t form such relationships at all.)

Some species of lichens, those gray-green combinations of fungi and algae that flock trees, are found high in trees; some others are found low in trees.

Some of our larger mammals, such as raccoons and bears, may sleep under conifers or in their sturdiest lower branches.

It gets more complex: many species may use several parts of a conifer as habitat and the habitats offered by a conifer change as the tree grows and matures. Flat, moss-covered tops of broad limbs in very old conifers are where marbled murrelets build their nests, for example.

And, of course, when the conifer eventually dies, other, different sets of habitats become available for use.

Now the cheerful focal point of our home during the darkest days of the year, our Yule tree offered a dynamic variety of homes for others in the wild.

For information on how you can arrange an exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541/267-4027,, or . Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome.


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